…and now for the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ – The Potential Pitfalls of the New School Performance Tables and National Curriculum

8th February 2013

Like Laura, I welcome (most of) the raft of announcements made by Michael Gove yesterday, however, as the dust settles, the inevitable ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ become clearer. So here are a few questions to ask about the Value Added Best 8, English and Maths Threshold, National Curriculum and comparability:

Value Added Best 8

Before I get started I should say; I am incredibly excited about this change. It could herald one of the biggest improvements in education policy in a long time: most secondary schools use the infamous C/D borderline to make decisions on who teaches which classes, which subjects pupils study and how money is spent. All of this could change and we may finally see a more equitable focus on all pupils’ progress. This is great.


Missing data

In 2010 a quarter of schools boycotted Year 6 SATs. In 2015 these pupils will take GCSEs. It is unclear to me what their KS4 value added scores will be based on. Teacher assessments could be used but these will not be comparable with externally assessed results from other years.

More broadly, Stephen Gorard has argued that the old Contextual Value Added measures were useless due to missing data. This was largely due to gaps in demographic information which will not be included in the VA best 8 measure. However, I am still not clear what will happen to the VA measure when no KS2 data is available. Take this example from one of the schools I work with:


When this Year 9 cohort reach Year 11, a third of them will not have KS2 data. How will their value added scores be calculated?

As far as I can tell, there are two options. One: exclude them, or, two: plug in the national average. Either of these approaches would be fine if the missing pupils’ starting points were average. But they probably aren’t. Most will be pupils who recently arrived in the country (perhaps not speaking English). They often need substantially more effort from the school but also go on to make huge progress. If their progress is not accurately represented in the league tables then schools’ hard work and success will go unrecorded.

This is not a new problem- VA was already a performance measure, however it becomes much more important now that it has been promoted to the top rung of accountability measures (the floor standards). It seems such a big issue that I struggle to believe it has been neglected, so I look forward to an explanation. I did appeal for clarification on Twitter but got no news so for me this remains a big “but?!?”

Cap on aspirations

Chris Cook was quick to point out this problem on the Today program: we all agree (I hope) that the socio-economic attainment gap is currently too big. In 2012 at KS2 it was 16%. If accountability measures are based on achieving fixed levels of progress from there, then we are building a 16% socio-economic attainment gap at KS4 into our expectations.

That said, the government’s (reasonable) principle of publishing multiple measures, will hopefully counterbalance this problem to some extent.


At the moment when the DfE (or anyone else) puts out (or suggests) crazy claims (like sponsored academies improving 2.5% faster than other schools), geeky people like me have a look at the data and critique it. That’s quite easy with simple measures like 5A*-C+E&M. It will be much more complicated with the new measures (although hopefully we’ll rise to the challenge). Worse, how easily will parents outside of education understand the numbers?

This is an inconvenience rather than a killer but as Chris Cook says In statistics, the best solution is the simplest” .


English and Maths Threshold

Lee Donaghy mentioned yesterday that he’d spotted “hedging” on what would count as a ‘pass’ in English and Maths. He thought it might be a hint that a C would no longer be the threshold. I decided to take a look and here’s what the ‘consultation’ says:

Footnote to 4.2: “grade C and above are often referred to as being passes, both colloquially and in international comparisons. We use pass in inverted commas to mean an outcome consistent with performance standards in high performing educational jurisdictions.”

5.4:  “a good standard in both English and mathematics GCSEs”

5.14: “The required levels for both the minimum standards in English and mathematics, and for progress in the eight subjects, will be set to ensure that these are sufficiently challenging without unfairly disadvantaging schools with a very low-performing or very high-performing intake”

I think Lee is right- we could be in for more surprises here…

National Curriculum

The second part of yesterday’s announcement related to the long delayed National Curriculum. Gove certainly delivered on his promise to increase the knowledge component (even if some very odd ‘savoury dishes’ slipped through – See Laura’s blog ).

I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether the move towards facts is a good thing (partly because I change my own mind every five minutes thanks to convincing advocates like Daisy Christodoulou and Daniel Willingham). What I was looking forward to seeing was how the review would deliver on the promise to “slim down” and free up time for a broader and freer “school curriculum.”

In some subjects the reforms delivered: Citizenship was mercifully saved (Yey!) and the KS3 and 4 content fits on almost 1 page. However in other subjects, promises were unfulfilled.

I particularly hate to think what is going to come of History teaching. The curriculum specifies the most extraordinary quantity of content leaving me to wonder where the space will be for analysis, debate and controversies. As SchoolDuggery has pointed out, it will also be very hard for schools to use cross curricula or project based teaching. That’s probably the intention: Gibb and Gove hate these approaches; but it doesn’t sit very comfortably with the (‘so-often-ignored-it’s-become-a-joke’) promise to leave pedagogy to teachers.

I’m also excited about the introduction of Computing which could equip young people with valuable and fascinating skills. I only wonder how all KS2 teachers will gain the confidence to teach pupils to write programs and “use logical reasoning to explain how a simple algorithm works and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs”.


Finally, @OCRCymru raises the question of comparability across the nations: In response to the GCSE fiasco this summer, Wales broke with England and adjusted its grade boundaries. That means a pupil who got a D in England may have got a C in Wales. Yet both are called GCSE English. The advent of EBC would have resolved the issue of “same name, different outcome” but Gove’s (welcome) retreat leaves this unresolved.

Overall, I think yesterday was a good day for education, but, as always, the devil is in the detail and I only hope these pitfalls can be navigated.

Doubtless I’ve missed plenty of others, so do leave any pitfalls you’ve spotted as comments or tweet them @LKMco